In a recent case before a state appeals court, the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC) appealed a circuit court ruling, reversing its determination that an employee hadn’t suffered a mental injury compensable under the Worker’s Compensation Act.
Timothy Wotnoske was employed by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) as a correctional officer. He filed a worker’s compensation claim for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and panic disorder after experiencing several incidents, including working in prisons during two unexpected power outages, working in another when inmates rushed him after a riot, supervisors’ accusing him of work rule violations and launching investigations against him, and being sexually harassed by a coworker.
The claim was heard by an administrative law judge (ALJ). At the hearing, Wotnoske presented testimony of an experienced correctional officer who opined that Wotnoske’s experiences were unusual. A medical expert testified that Wotnoske suffered from PTSD, major depressive disorder, and panic disorder and that the above incidents caused his mental injury.
In contrast, the DOC presented testimony that Wotnoske’s experiences weren’t unusually stressful because it trains its correctional officers on how to respond to power outages and unruly inmates in its institutions. It also presented medical expert testimony that his employment wasn’t the cause of his behavioral and psychological difficulties, and his underlying personality disorder was long-standing.
The ALJ ruled in favor of Wotnoske, finding that he suffered a compensable injury as a result of emotional stresses that were greater than those a correctional officer can typically be expected to experience on the job. The DOC petitioned for review before the LIRC.
On review, the LIRC reversed the ALJ’s decision, finding that “the incidents the applicant experienced while employed as a correctional guard for the employer were not of greater dimension than the day-to-day emotional strains and tensions that all correctional guards can be expected to experience in their work.”
Wotnoske appealed the LIRC’s ruling to the circuit court, and the circuit court reversed the LIRC’s decision and upheld the ALJ’s finding that his mental injuries were compensable. The DOC appealed.
The appeals court noted its narrow basis of review, stating, “The court affirms LIRC’s decision unless it acted without proper authority or exceeded its powers, its decision was procured by fraud, or its findings of fact do not support its order or award.”
Importantly, the court clarified its role as not reviewing the facts from the beginning but instead accepting the LIRC’s factual findings if they’re supported by substantial and credible evidence. It noted there was ample evidence to support the LIRC’s finding that Wotnoske hadn’t met his burden of proving he was subject to situations as a DOC correctional officer that were more stressful than situations a similarly situated DOC employee might experience.
With regard to the medical evidence Wotnoske presented, establishing that unusual work incidents caused him mental injuries, the appeals court observed the DOC also presented medical evidence to the contrary and stated, “It is not our place to weigh the competing medical evidence to reach a different conclusion than LIRC did as long as the evidence LIRC reviewed supports its findings.”
It reversed the circuit court and affirmed the LIRC’s determination that he didn’t suffer a compensable, nontraumatic mental injury. Wotnoske v. Lab. & Indus. Rev. Comm’n, no. 2021AP1120 (Wis. Ct. App., Sept. 6, 2023) (unpublished).
Workers claiming worker’s compensation for a medical injury must establish that the employment incidents causing the mental injury are greater than those a similar worker can typically be expected to experience on the job.
Judicial review of an LIRC determination is narrow. Upon review of an LIRC ruling, the reviewing court must affirm the LIRC’s decision unless it acted without proper authority or exceeded its powers, its decision was procured by fraud, or its findings of fact don’t support its order or award.
This article, slightly modified to note recent updates, was featured online in the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.